Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

Clean Hands, Clean Heart

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Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

Clean Hands, Clean Heart

Dr. Mickey Anders

While on vacation in Daytona Beach last week, our family quickly fell into a regular daily routine.  The first thing on the agenda every morning was a power-walk on the beach.  We usually wore our tennis shoes and walked as fast as we could on the firm beach the mile or more to the pier, where we enjoyed a nice breakfast at Crabby Joe’s place.  Then we completed our daily exercise as we hiked back with the morning sun beginning to warm the day.

Then after all the day’s activities of shopping, swimming, sailing, and surfing, we took another long walk on the beach at dusk.  This time we often walked barefoot in the edge of the water.  This was a leisurely stroll in which we soaked up the serenity of the day’s end.  The constant movement of the water and the close presence of the resting gulls and sandpipers had a hypnotic effect on us.  By the end of the pleasant walk on the beach, the mellowness of the ocean had worked its way inside of us.

We were only there a week, but the routine became a habit that we didn’t want to break.  Isn’t it amazing that we so easily fall into a routine like that?  I guess we are all creatures of habit.  We easily become accustomed to doing things the same way.

We do the same thing in church.  We quickly learn to count on a certain predictability of the activities of Sunday school and worship, and we are very hesitant to see them change.  If we are not careful, some of these expectations become full-fledged traditions.  They take on significance far greater than simply being a convenient routine.  Some things become almost holy and unchangeable.  When that happens they have moved from being a routine to become a sacred cow.  Then, when someone tampers with a sacred cow, people become very upset.

Every church has such traditions that have become sacred cows.  In one church I pastored, the color of the carpet had become the sacred cow.  We had always had red carpet, but now the property committee was going to change it to blue.  Some people just weren’t sure they could worship God on a BLUE CARPET, God forbid.

At another church, we had the Great Hymnbook Controversy of 1975.  For twenty years, the 1956 version of the hymnal had been used and cherished in that church, but now the music committee wanted to purchase the newly updated 1975 version.  This decision sparked a major debate on the quality of music in each hymnal.  The final decision was made at a two-hour church-wide business meeting where we finally hammered out a compromise that barely averted dividing the church.  The 1956 hymnal would be kept in the sanctuary, and the 1975 hymnal would be used in the chapel.

I have heard about a church where a similar controversy erupted over whether the Communion would be served before the sermon or after the sermon.  Other churches fight over where the piano is placed, where the Doxology is sung, or even how to take the offering.

It seems that every church manages to elevate certain practices from the routine to sacred traditions.  Church growth specialist Bill Easum once wrote about book about this phenomenon.  He called it “Sacred Cows Make Gourmet Burgers.”  Churches that grow have to find a way to eat those sacred cows.

But not all traditions are bad.  Some traditions are important.  They can be a valuable aid in communicating to us the truth about God and the truth about ourselves.

When we talk of tradition, most of us who have seen the movie “Fiddler On The Roof” cannot help but remember the wonderful scene in which Tevya sings the theme song, “Tradition.”  As he sings that song, he explains to the audience the value of tradition as he sees it.  At one point he says, “Our tradition tells us who God is and who we are.”   When tradition can do that, it is a good tradition.  You see, tradition is meant to speak of the reality behind the tradition.

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For two thousand years, the Church has observed the twin traditions of baptism and the Lord’s Supper, and both of them are the very best kind of tradition.  They meet the test that Tevya gave us — they tell us who God is and who we are.  And both speak of spiritual realities behind and beyond the tradition itself.

In our text for today, Jesus speaks about the kind of tradition that fails the test.  He points out that there is a kind of tradition that is wrong, that gets in the way of spiritual realities rather than pointing to them.

Mark begins chapter seven with a marked change of pace. The change comes because of the on-going conflict with the Pharisees.  This chapter gathers together many of the sayings of Jesus that directly conflicted with the traditions of the day.

Here we find that the Pharisees and scribes were upset with some of Jesus’ disciples because they were not properly observing the traditions of the elders at mealtime.  The Pharisees had noticed that the disciples were not performing the ceremonial washings of their hands before they ate.

Before the Jews would eat, they poured water over their hands with the fingers pointed upward. This water was kept in special jars and guarded to be free from any impurities.  The Jews washed their hands and then poured water again over their hands from the wrists; this time holding their fingers downward.  It was thought that in this fashion, they would purify their hands from any ceremonial uncleanness.  Now this action had nothing to do with hygiene.  It was merely a ceremonial washing, and it had become a very important tradition.

Jesus condemned such traditions that became more important than the things they represented.  In verse 8, he says, “For you set aside the commandment of God, and hold tightly to the tradition of men.”

Jesus saw through their dead tradition.  He saw that they were more concerned with outward things than they were with the things that really count.  Their worship was vain because they exalted tradition to the status of doctrine.

In Matthew 23:25-26, Jesus says, “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and of the platter, but within they are full of extortion and unrighteousness. You blind Pharisee, first clean the inside of the cup and of the platter, that its outside may become clean also.”

Jesus cut through the superficiality of their outward observances to stress that the inside was more important than the outside.  Jesus was more concerned with their heart condition than their hand condition.  Someone said, “The heart of Christianity is the heart.”

A young rabbi went to serve his first synagogue, and he noticed that on the first Sabbath, when he said the prayers, the congregation on the left side of the synagogue stood at the beginning of the prayers, and the congregation on the right side remained seated.  The young rabbi thought this was a little odd, but continued to say the prayers.  After the first couple of petitions, he noticed a murmuring, which intensified as he continued the prayers.  Finally, it got loud enough that he was able to make out some of the words.

The murmuring in the congregation was a disagreement between the two halves of the congregation; the left half was saying that in this synagogue the tradition was that the congregation stood during the prayers, and the right half was saying that in this congregation the tradition was that they sat during the prayers.

As the prayers continued, the voices got louder, until finally the rabbi stopped because he was sure that God was the only one who could hear him anymore.

Hoping that this event was due to having a new rabbi (and attempting to influence him), the young rabbi did not discuss it with anyone, but the next Sabbath, it happened again.  The argument once again got so loud that the young rabbi stopped before he had finished his prayers – people were actually yelling at each other.  The tone had gotten rancorous, and each side of the congregation started to engage in accusations of heresy and other name-calling.

The young rabbi looked up the elderly rabbi who had served this congregation for years, and told him what was going on.  The question he asked at the end of his story was, “So is it the tradition of the congregation to stand during the prayers?”

The older rabbi stroked his beard and replied, “No, that has never been the tradition of that congregation.”

“So the tradition is that they remain sitting during the prayers?”

The older rabbi looked off into the distance, as if remembering the good years serving God as a rabbi and said, “No, that was never the tradition of that congregation either.”

The young rabbi threw his hands in the air in exasperation, and said, “There must be some solution to this!  The way things are now, they just end up screaming at each other during the prayers.”

The old rabbi’s face lit up in a smile as he lifted an admonishing finger to the sky and said, “Yes!  That was our tradition!”

God is more concerned with who we are on the inside than the outward ceremonies we observe.  You can pray standing up or you can pray sitting down and still never really pray.  You can wash your hands a thousand times and still have sin in your heart.  You can sing every song in the 1956 hymnal and still not know God.  You can worship on red carpet all your life and never really experience holy ground.  You can take crust and the cup before the sermon every time and still never commune with God.  It’s not the outward form of the tradition that matters; it’s what lies in our hearts that counts.

Jesus told us that it was impossible to put new wine into old wineskins.  You see, the old wineskins are already stretched and brittle, and the new wine expands and causes them to break.  The wineskins are lost and the wine is lost as well.  The old wineskins represent the structures we get into, the outward traditions that have forgotten the heart.  The new wine is that which God is doing in us, the new work.  If we would have new wine, we must also have new wineskins.

The Jews were trying to get Jesus to conform to ceremonial laws.  But Jesus knew the new wine had to have room to expand.  When we look at the early church, we see that they changed with God’s moving in their midst.  They were not bound to the past, but were living in God’s glorious now.

God wants to do a new thing today, and we need to be open to it.  What worked yesterday may not have power for today.  We live in a new day with new challenges, and we need to hear the word of the Lord for today.

Paul said in Philippians 3:13-14, “Forgetting the things which are behind, and stretching forward to the things which are before, 3:14 I press on toward the goal for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus.”

Let’s be open for God to do a new thing in our lives.  Let’s be open for God to do a new thing in our church.

Scripture quotations from the World English Bible.

Copyright 2000, Mickey Anders. Used by permission.